My father was a city boy from Chicago. When he was a kid there, John Dillinger, betrayed by the lady in red, fell at the hands of a small army of FBI agents just a few blocks from where he lived. A few years later, when dad arrived by train in that dusty little town of Dutton, Montana, north of Great Falls, he stepped into a far different world, a place that would become his home and the home of his children.
Taking his first look at real mountains, the Rocky Mountain Front looming some 50 miles distant, he announced to his host that he would like to take a walk over there in the hour he had before supper.
His host that day and, unbeknownst to either, his father-in-law to be, never tired of telling how the wide-eyed young preacher thought those mountains were close enough to touch.
Something happened between that day and the day I tied his last fly on for him when his shaking hands and failing eyesight made it impossible to do it himself. I know that because I never knew him as a city-slicker.
On the contrary, if I hadn't been told otherwise, I would have assumed he was born wearing wool pants and hobnail boots and gripping a bamboo fly rod in his Norwegian fist. The preacher I saw on Sundays, the guy striding purposefully about the church in his vestments, and later the serious teacher in Saturday morning confirmation classes, was only part of the dad I knew firsthand.
That was my dad at work.
The rest of him was the fellow with a wide and ready grin who, wearing a red felt hat, heavy canvas pack, an ancient pair of rubber-soled hunting boots, and a faded Marine Corps fatigue jacket, herded my brothers and me along a mountain trail to an alpine lake
He was the guy who loved to cook freshly caught trout for lunch when we floated a river. He packed a battered old frying pan and a stick of butter for just that purpose. When the fish were brown and curling up like bacon strips, he would slide one onto a flat, plate-sized rock he had found for each of us and serve us like royalty.
My father never developed the love for hunting that he had for fishing, but he tolerated and even encouraged the enthusiasms of his sons. He taught us to handle firearms with what we thought at the time was excessive caution. And until we were old enough to hunt on our own, he took us afield, showed us how to find the game, and helped us get it home.
Packed somewhere between that first day in Montana and the batch of kids pleading for hunting, fishing and camping trips was the nightmare of Tarawa and Guadalcanal. That must have changed nearly everything for him. I cannot know how.
By the time I came along he was a competent outdoorsman. He may have learned his woodcraft from a library book in Chicago, but it seemed like the real thing to me. At some time or another he learned something about judging distances in a place where, on a clear day, you might be able to see farther than it is across the whole state of Illinois. Even so, he was a master of the white lie when it came to cajoling a reluctant boy into slogging another mile or two up the trail.
"It's not much farther now. You're doing fine. Keep on plugging," he would say.
And being a preacher, he was also a master at maintaining his composure. That is, of course, unless there was a big fish involved, either on the end of his line or the line of one of his four sons.
When one of us tied into a good trout, we would hear a steady stream of incoherent or contradictory coaching, interspersed with comments like, "Oh boy, it's a dandy." "Man-o-man, what a fish!" "Don't horse it!." "Calm down now, calm down!"
And he would be so excited that if he happened to add the lucky angler's name to any of his exclamations, he would have to run through all four of our names and then double back to the correct one. He could say, "Val, Sandy, Greg, and Steve" faster than I could think our names.
There were times, of course, when I got to thinking my dad was just a notch or two above the rest of humankind, being a preacher and all. But that idea was put to rest one summer at a church camp way up near the end of the Boulder River road south of Big Timber.
Mornings were dedicated to religious studies of some sort. There were lectures, classes and devotions, all of which had to be endured to earn the right to the outside activities of the afternoon. Everyone participated. I was one camper who was more interested in the activities than the studies.
One morning I devised some ruse which had me in several different groups, each of which assumed I was in another. I, however, was sneaking around the brush down near the river, fly rod in hand, planning to get the jump on the afternoon crowd.
Rounding a sharp bend in the river I was startled to see a familiar figure casting into a nice riffle. Edging back into the trees, I watched my father work the fly and occasionally glance furtively about. As the director of the camp for this particular week, he had somehow scheduled things so he would not have to be a constant presence on this particular morning. Nobody would miss him when everyone was tied up with a morning class.
I watched him delicately drop his goofus bug in the pockets below the smooth, dark boulders that characterized that foaming, tumbling stream not far from its source in the mountains above. He was absolutely intent upon what he was doing. The noise of the rushing water blocked out any outside sounds. Knowing that if he saw me, it would mean the end of fishing for the day for both of us, I slipped away and spent the morning fishing farther upstream.
I never saw my father quite the same way after that.
I never told him about having seen him play hooky, but that moment created a secret bond between us that I felt for the rest of his days.
It made me admire him just a little bit more.
It is sometimes difficult to dredge around in the psyche for traces of our fathers. But if we rummage enough, the odds are we'll find gifts from our fathers that make life more livable.
Watching him that morning on the Boulder was one of his gifts to me. Tying his flies on for him was another. And imagining him as a young man, gazing off at those distant mountains for the first time and yearning to see them up close, to walk there, and to look back out on the prairie is another one.
Those gifts endure.
May our own children be so fortunate.
Happy Father's Day.
Greg Tollefson is a freelance Missoula writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at email@example.com.